Auckland, June 30, 2020
Before a momentous mission launching two NASA astronauts into orbit from Cape Canaveral in May this year, tech entrepreneur Elon Musk pronounced: “ I am the Chief Engineer of this thing and so, I would just like to say that if it goes right, it is credit to the SpaceX-NASA team. If it goes wrong, it is my fault.” Thankfully, things went right.
For our Health Minister David Clark however, things have been more Apollo 11 than SpaceX.
It is dire when a Minister of the Crown needs to take leadership lessons from a Silicon Valley billionaire, but here we are. As Musk said, leadership is not about pointing fingers, it is about humbly standing up and taking responsibility.
Under Alert Level 4, Clark repeatedly breached lockdown restrictions, driving to the beach and bike trails, and shifting house. “At a time when we are asking New Zealanders to make historic sacrifices I’ve let the team down,” Clark admitted, “I’ve been an idiot.”
The Prime Minister demoted him on the Cabinet rankings, but reluctantly declined his resignation as Minister as it would be too destabilising at a time of crisis.
New Zealanders betrayed
The “team of 5 million” felt more than let down recently, after news broke of flagrant testing and quarantine failures leading to the end of our short-lived Covid-free status.
When asked about responsibility at a media stand-up, Clark said that Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield had already accepted responsibility, and assumedly, that he did not need to. Bloomfield winced in the background.
The Housing Minister and the military were called in to take charge of the borders.
It has been a failure on several counts.
Perhaps if the unlikely bureaucratic hero Bloomfield was not doing Clark’s job of fronting for media over the lockdown, he might have had more time to oversee operational matters like testing.
Bloomfield’s consistent and reassuring presence in front of the media was laudable, but the Minister’s absence meant that the news media were not able to properly hold Clark to account for failures of the Health system.
Constitutional convention flaunted
It also flaunts the constitutional convention of Individual Ministerial Responsibility.
Now, this looks different in different Westminster countries, but here, the convention is that the Minister takes responsibility, even if not to blame.
It does not necessarily mean that heads must roll every time, but it does at least require the Minister to stand up and own it.
The Cabinet Manual leaves consequences up to the Prime Minister, who, along with Clark, seems to want to sweep it away and focus on fixing things.
The public, I suspect, may not be so quick to leave it in the past, and with an election around the corner, we will soon find out.
This is the beauty of democracy, if conventions and trust are undermined, the people ultimately have their say. This is not just about Clark, but about the appropriate role of a Minister.
Securing borders and launching rockets are distinct tasks, of course, but both are life-and-death. Kindness is nice, but when the stakes are this high, we must ensure that accountability is paramount.
Kieran Madden is Research Manager at Maxim Institute based in Auckland.